Updated: 03/06/21 | June 3rd, 2021
Nicaragua has quite literally been shaped by the 26 volcanoes that call this Central American country home. So, it’s only natural that it’s also one of the small handful of places in the world (Chile, parts of Africa and the mighty Mount Yasur of Vanuatu) where you can get your heart pumping, with an exhilarating volcano boarding experience.
And where better than the youngest volcano in the region; Cerro Negro. At just 160 years old and with 23 eruptions under its belt, it’s also a pretty active volcano too, which makes that whole experience that little bit more nail-biting.
Here are the ins and outs of volcano boarding in Nicaragua.
What Exactly is Volcano Boarding?
Imagine volcano boarding to be a bit like sledging. Except swap the snowy hill in the countryside for an active volcano in Nicaragua. And that shiny red sledge you’ve just bought? Let’s change that for a pretty basic wooden plank.
You can choose whether to sit or stand on your board, but most people sit down so they can control the speed a little easier, especially when they start topping 50mph (~80kph).
Nicaragua Volcano Boarding: Why Cerro Negro is The Most Popular Choice
Back in 2002, French sportsman and Hollywood stuntman Eric Barone attempted to set a world record by riding a bike down Cerro Negro. 107mph (170kph), and a lot of broken bones later, he vowed never to do it again.
Those with morbid curiosity can view the nasty fall below in this video:
The story then goes that Daryn Wedd, an intrepid Aussie explorer, had faith that Cerro Negro could deliver. He attempted to ride down the volcano, first on a fridge door, second on his mattress and finally on his front door. After several failed attempts, Daryn constructed a wooden board attached to a sheet of metal – similar to those that you’ll see being used today. Hence, Nicaragua volcano boarding was born.
But it’s not just this story that makes Cerro Negro one of the best places to go volcano boarding. It’s actually one of the more accessible volcanoes in Nicaragua, and with a strong wind blowing across the top, it naturally forms the best slope for volcano boarding.
How To Get To Cerro Negro (Leon)
To get to Leon from an international destination, you will need to fly to Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport in Managua. You’ll struggle to find a direct flight here from destinations outside of South America, and you may even find yourself needing to deal with a few stopovers, too (usually in JFK).
Once you’ve finally arrived in Managua, you can make the 90km journey to Leon either by public or shuttle bus ($2 USD one-way), both of which you’ll find right outside the arrivals lounge at the airport.
Once in Leon, most travellers choose to join a tour to experience volcano boarding, but you don’t actually have to do this. You can explore the volcano independently (I discuss the ins and outs of this below), but this can end up being more hassle than it’s worth.
Let’s take a look.
Popular: Join a tour
For a stress-free experience, it’s easier to join a tour to get your taste of Nicaragua volcano boarding. They’ll provide the transport, all of the gear you need and give you a safety briefing before you set off down the hill. I paid 1300 Nicaraguan Cordoba, (around 40 USD), which usually includes the park’s entry fee. Most tours leave around 8 am in the morning and return in the afternoon to allow you to make the hike up the volcano before the midday heat hits.
DIY: Rent a Car
If you’re not a fan of travelling via a tour, there is a DIY option. No public transport stops off near Cerro Negro, so you’ll need to rent a car from Leon and drive around 45-minutes to the volcano. Renting a car is relatively easy and costs an average of $18 per day, depending on your insurance cover. It’s worth keeping in mind that the road to Cerro Negro isn’t well-maintained, and you may even need a 4×4 to ensure you can make it the whole way.
You’ll also need to organise all of the gear you’ll need for the boarding before you leave Leon (more on this later). There aren’t any stalls selling boards or protective clothing at the volcano, so you’ll need to scour through town to buy this yourself.
Cost of Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro
If you join a tour, the cost of volcano boarding in Nicaragua is straightforward; most companies will charge around $30-35, which includes a transfer from Leon, all of your equipment and protective gear, as well as the $5 park entrance fee.
If you’re braving it alone, there will be a few more things to factor into the cost:
- Car Rental (and petrol): ~$20USD/day
- Park Entry Fee: ~$5USD/person
- Wooden Board (or alternative?): These aren’t available to rent near Cerro Negro, so get hunting in Leon before leaving.
- Protective gear, including jumpsuit, goggles and gloves; again, you’ll need to look out for these in Leon before you head to Cerro Negro.
How Hard is The Hike Up to The Top of Cerro Negro?
Hiking to the top of Cerro Negro shouldn’t take longer than an hour, but really it all comes down to your fitness level. It’s not a difficult hike, and the path is in decent condition, but you will need to carry your 7kg wooden board all the way to the top (around a 700m (2400ft) incline) and the gusts of wind might test your patience too. This could pose a problem for anyone with back issues, so it’s worth bearing it in mind. Sometimes, locals will offer to carry your board up for you for a few dollars.
What To Wear While Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
If you’re joining a tour to Cerro Negro, you’ll be given almost all of the protective wear you’ll need for volcano boarding. In this case, you’ll just need to dress for the weather and the hike to the top of the volcano.
If you’re making the journey yourself, here’s a list of must-haves.
- Closed-toe shoes suitable for loose, rocky and steep tracks.
- Shorts and a t-shirt are perfectly fine for the hike.
- Bandana. You’ll be amazed where the volcanic rocks and ash can get. A bandana or scarf wrapped around your face will give your mouth and nose a bit more protection. BUFF headwear is my personal shout, an absolute godsend to us baldies in these scorching hot countries.
- Jumpsuit. A thick denim jumpsuit (usually in bright orange) will safeguard your skin as you fly down the volcano.
- Hat. A bit of sun protection is always a good idea for the 45-minute hike to the top.
- Gloves. Trust me, you don’t want to be grazing your hands across the razor-sharp volcanic rocks. Thick gloves (or equivalent) will make sure your hands are protected.
- Go Pro/Camera. This is definitely something you’ll want to catch on camera to show your mates. Make sure your GoPro (or camera) is sturdy enough to take a few bumps.
- Sturdy phone case. If you can avoid taking your phone, then do. If not, make sure you’ve got a super hardy phone case, or Gorilla Glass screen protection that will take the brunt of any falls.
- Wooden board. Your wooden board is your trusted friend during this whole experience. Tours will provide you with your own wooden board, but you’ll need to get creative if you’re doing this yourself. (Leave the hotel door on its hinges though).
- Day sack. Pretty standard – you can keep all of your things safe while you’re hurtling down the volcano. Tuck them into your jumpsuit for even more safety.
- Goggles. When you hurtle 50mph down a volcano, you’re going to get some backsplash. Thousands of tiny volcanic rocks spring up and hit you in your face. At least the goggles will protect your eyes.
- Suncream. Even in the winter, temperatures around Cerro Negro rarely dip below 20°C.
- Water. The hike might not be super strenuous, but the heat of the day and the volcano combined means you’ll be sweating a tonne. Take at least a litre of water to keep your fluids up.
- Snack. You don’t want to get caught out hangry at the top of Cerro Negro. There are some stalls at the bottom selling basic snacks, so grab some of these before the hike.
How To Stay Alive & Uninjured Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
I don’t want to sound like your mum (or “mam” as they say in my neck of the woods), nor do I want to scare you off Nicaragua volcano boarding (it is definitely the coolest thing you’ll do in the country if you’re into adventure travel). But, there’s no point having the time of your life if you’re going to end up in a heaped pile at the bottom of the volcano, or, even worse, in the hospital for the rest of your trip.
- Clothing. Your tour guide will give you a (relatively bright and funky) jumpsuit to don during your ride, along with hardy goggles and some gloves. This is all for your own safety, so make sure you’re wearing them before you jump on your board. If you’re tackling Cerro Negro by yourself, you’ll need to bring some hard-duty protective wear with you.
- Technique. If you’re on tour, you’ll be given a briefing about how to stay safe while on the board. It’s simple enough – just remember to keep your elbows in and your feet forward. If you want to slow down, dig your heels into the ground. To speed up, lie back and tense that core! If you feel like you’re going to fall off, try to fall backwards, preferably away from the board.
- Valuables. It’s not worth taking your phone with you, as if you have a nasty fall, it’s likely to be the first thing to take the impact. Most tours will give you a small backpack to tuck inside your jumpsuit for valuables like keys and your wallet.
- Stand up or sit down? You can choose whether you want to surf, or toboggan down Cerro Negro, but I’d recommend the latter. Sitting gives you much more control over the board, and you’re much less likely to fall off and face plant those jagged rocks.
- Insurance. While accidents are pretty rare on the volcano, there’s always the possibility of injury when you’re out adventure sporting. It’s worth making sure your insurance covers you for slightly more unusual activities like Nicaragua volcano boarding.
Other Things to do in Leon After Volcano Boarding Down Cerro Negro
While volcano boarding may have put Nicaragua on the map, there are plenty of other reasons to stick around. Here are just a few things to do in Leon once you’ve got over your adrenaline rush.
1. Check out some Nicaraguan street art
After the fall of Anastasio Somoza (a dictator who ruled Nicaragua from the mid-1930s to the late 70s), street art quickly became a way for ordinary citizens to express their political views. You’ll find vibrant murals sprawled across city streets across Nicaragua, but Leon is home to some of the most powerful images. Look out for the bullet holes from shots fired during the revolution, a reminder of the city’s ongoing struggle for freedom.
2. Explore the largest cathedral in Central America
Before Nicaraguan volcano boarding came about, being home to Central America’s largest cathedral was Leon’s claim to fame. Known, rather convolutedly, as the ‘Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,’ this bright white cathedral has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the burial site of significant local poets. Most visitors climb to the top of the cathedral to take in the surrounding view of the city and its backdrop of volcanoes in the distance (for a modest fee of 3 USD).
3. Cool down at one of Nicaragua’s stunning beaches
If the city’s heat is getting a little too much, Leon is only a 30-minute drive from some of the country’s most spectacular beaches. One of the most popular to head to is Playa Las Penitas, which offers a palm-tree lined sandy shoreline, perfect for surfing, swimming, or just having a snooze in the sun.
To get there, head to the mercadito just outside of the city centre, and join the queue for the chicken bus (decommissioned American school buses turned public transport that carries everything from passengers to poultry). The journey will cost about 50 cents. Alternatively, flag down a local taxi, which will be around $10 each way.
4. Cook up (and sample) Nicaraguan cuisine
Living up to its colonial past, much of the food you’ll eat in Nicaragua leans towards Spanish cuisine. Corn tortillas (a soft wrap), tostadas (a deep-fried pancake topped with minced meat and/or vegetables) and gallo pinto (a mixture of rice and beans) all feature on most restaurant menus. If you want to find out the secrets to recreating these delicious flavours at home, taking a local cooking class is a must.
5. Learn about the country’s revolutionary history
If you’re looking for a little more context behind the many street murals that you’ll see around town, head to the Museum of the Revolution. While the facade of the building may be a little lacklustre, for just a $3 entry fee, you can get a pretty insightful glimpse into the history of Nicaragua. Your entrance fee includes a guided tour of the museum, but these are only taken in the sweet Spanish language.
6. Plan a day trip to Granada
While you’re in Nicaragua, it’s worth checking out Granada, Leon’s more touristy and arguably more beautiful sister. Famed for its colourful collection of colonial buildings and its proximity to some pretty impressive volcanoes, a day trip to Granada is a must. You might find a tour heading this way, if not, tour companies tend to put on shuttles between major cities in Nicaragua for tourists.
7. Join a free walking tour around Leon
Ideal if you’re on a budget, or if you’re hoping to meet a few pals along the way, a walking tour around Leon will help you to get your bearings around the city. Most guided tours are carried out in Spanish or English and give you a good overview of the history and culture of the city. While they’re technically free, don’t be “that guy;” put your hand in your pocket for a worthy donation to the guide.
Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua: Conclusion (Worth The Hype?)
Bombing down an active volcano at 70 km per hour, on a piece of wood, terrified for your life – what’s not to love?!
We went for the tour option. As you’ll see from the above logistics, it doesn’t make much sense to go solo as you’ll spend more money on sourcing gear, there’s also the time spent doing that and with the tours being so cheap, you certainly get more value for money going with a tour company.
The hike up took around 45 minutes, there was only one small part of that that was a little sketchy and we had to just be more careful with our footing, as the wind tried to knock us over.
We surfed down using our bum. I know, I know. How can I ever possibly take myself seriously as an international man of mystery? I can almost hear James Bond cry for me.
Surfing is of course a lot cooler and seemingly more daring than surfing on your bum. However, it’s not the case. Because of the terrain of the volcano – it’s actually slower to surf than to simply spearhead down on your arse like an unapologetic legend.
And trust me, you go fast enough!
You only get one chance to do this, as hiking back up takes too long, this is a one-time only event (unless you book for another day of course). I didn’t use my feet as a brake, due to a fear of spraining (or breaking) my ankle in the impact, or getting any friction burns on the bottom of my legs.
I gave myself into lady luck, which was on my side as the plank of wood got me to the end of the volcano in one exhilarating, adrenaline-pumping, dopamine-inducing piece. The only pain that I succumbed to was being stung by a wasp for the first time in over a decade (resulting in my best mate’s sardonic joy).
So hold on tight, don’t break, focus on bracing your core for strength and direction. And most importantly… have fun!